Obituary:Leo Nichols

Leo Nichols was as notable for his death as for his life. A longtime friend of Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, he was arrested in April as part of a Burmese government campaign to tighten the screws on her wherever she was vulnerable. He died in custody on Saturday, among allegations that the regime had denied him proper medical treatment in prison. He was not a political man, but becomes another martyr for the cause of democracy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has survived only barely between its landslide election win in 1990, and its leader's release from house arrest a year ago. Some speculated that Leo Nichols was the NLD's secret banker, but both he and the NLD have always denied this. Indeed, he could not have become involved in NLD finances in any way without making the party vulnerable under election law. But as a successful businessman he was able to help Aung San Suu Kyi herself, by finding her a gardener and handymen for her house, and lending her his car on occasion. He was an elusive, slightly mysterious figure, of mixed parentage, who unofficially continued to represent the interests in Rangoon of Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland - though he relinquished the offical title of consul-general 15 years ago.

Nichols was born in 1931, the offspring of a Greek shipping family based in Rangoon - owners of the Stevedoring Shipping Company. He spent the Japanese occupation of Burma at school in India. After the Second World War, in which his father died, he returned to work in the family business with his uncle and brother. He married his wife, Felicity, in 1951, and they had five children - all of them now living in Australia and the United States.

In the 1950s, he held the position of General Manager of the United Liner Agencies in Rangoon - but the company was nationalised in 1962 after General Ne Win came to power. It was shortly afterwards that he was appointed Honorary Consul-General for the three Scandinavian countries. But he was briefly arrested in 1980 and as a result gave up his official representation, though he was released after a few days.

In recent years, Nichols devoted himself to making money and to distributing it to worthy causes. Even though his donations never appeared on the government lists, he quietly donated to Buddhist, Muslim and Christian charities. He himself was a Catholic.

After Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in July 1995 Nichols took breakfast with her every Friday at her house. In April this year he was arrested by the government, and in May he was sentenced to three years in prison. The Burmese official media accused him of "providing general expenses for the democratic stunt actress" but this was not the charge against him. Indeed, the actual charge provided little basis for the prison term, let alone solitary confinement on Death Row - in that he was accused only of owning two unlicensed fax machines and nine telephones. However telephone-tapping by military intelligence is a major industry in Burma; and this year the Burmese military has been determined to remove all possible lines of communication between the Burmese opposition leader and international media that evade their control.

Nichols's arrest was the first of many, for more than 250 NLD members were detained as they prepared to attend a party conference at Aung San Suu Kyi's house at the end of May. Most have now been released, but a number have disappeared - including two of those who, like Nichols, were close to the NLD leader on a personal basis. These were her cousin, U Aye Win and the NLD spokesman U Win Htein.

Nichols was confined in Insein Prison in Rangoon. He died, reportedly of a stroke, after being rushed to Rangoon General Hospital. The Danish foreign minister has demanded an investigation into whether he was being given proper medical treatment in prison, particularly for his known diabetes and heart condition.

Yet it was a measure of Leo Nichols's courage that he had always known the risk he ran by continuing to associate with the Burmese opposition leader - the probability of arrest sooner or later, and the high level of mortality in Burmese prisons, of medical causes alone. Back in 1989 he had been picked up once before, at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi's own detention; on that occasion he had been released, but a Muslim businessman who was arrested at the same time had died for lack of medical treatment.

"Uncle Leo", as he was known, was no soldier or politician, but was not willing to be a party to the regime's efforts to isolate Aung San Suu Kyi. In death, he becomes a hero of the democracy movement.

James Leander (Leo) Nichols, businessman: born Rangoon 8 June 1931; married 1951 (five children); died Rangoon 22 June 1996.

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